A global Arms Trade Treaty: a marathon not a sprint

Anna MacDonald

Blog post by Anna MacDonald

Oxfam International, Head of Arms Control
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The fight for an Arms Trade Treaty has been a marathon – not a sprint. Here, Oxfam’s Head of Arms Control Anna Macdonald sets out why she believes it’s worth staying the course.

The world has come within a hair’s breadth of agreeing a global Arms Trade Treaty. This would have been a huge step in the right direction for preventing genocide and human rights abuses by bringing the arms trade under control – and given the shocking atrocities unraveling in Syria each day, it’s definitely long overdue.

But on the last day of month-long negotiations at the UN, with agreement seemingly about to be reached,  the United States blocked the treaty, saying it needed more time to consider it. A final text had to be adopted on "the basis of consensus", a procedural rule insisted on by the US itself, and which effectively gave each country a veto. It was an anti-climax to a month of negotiations that had showed such promise. 

Frustration among supporter states quickly turned into determination, and a group statement from 90 states was read out by Mexico as the conference closed, laying down clearly that they will continue to work for a strong ATT as soon as possible.

The battle for an ATT has been a marathon.  A decade ago when we launched the Control Arms campaign, the Arms Trade Treaty was dismissed by many governments as an idealistic fantasy. Activists around the world refused to give up, eventually the governments started listening – and have now spent a month discussing in detail every aspect of how to make the treaty a reality.

The fight is not over

Negotiations may have ended in a lack of consensus this time, but the fight is by no means over. Our hopes are now pinned on the UN General Assembly, which opens in late-September.   The General Assembly works on the basis of majority voting, not consensus so it is entirely feasible for an improved Treaty text to now be tabled and voted on.

The draft treaty text provides a basis for states to now build on, and which will enable the arms trade to brought under control. Work needs to be done to improve the text as there are still several loopholes – almost all there at the insistence of the US – which must be removed; but it remains a significant achievement. 

Indeed, there is much in the text which we can be proud of, including the centrality of strong criteria around international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as sustainable development, anti-corruption measures and gender-based violence. Conventional weapons, their parts and components and ammunition are in there. 

Key changes are needed

It was positive to see the UK government stating their determination to see an ATT achieved in an open letter to the Control Arms coalition on Friday, but they were disappointingly coy both about the need to strengthen the text, and the specifics of the UN First Committee where a resolution will be tabled. The next stage MUST be with an improved text, not the loopholes that currently exist.  Now that the next phase is not bound by consensus, the UK and other treaty supporters should be immediately pushing for the strongest possible text, not compromising with loopholes imposed by the state which scuppered the July negotiations. 

Among key changes needed in the draft, ammunition, the fuel of conflict, must be subject to the same controls as other arms; annual reporting by states must be public, not secret; and a current clause allowing “existing defence cooperation” contracts to continue needs to be removed.

Strong treaties set international standards, and affect the behavior of all states, not just signatories. Strong treaties gain new members as well over the years. Weak treaties are…..weak treaties, and are rarely strengthened. 

We must keep the pressure

I have been fighting to help make an Arms Trade Treaty a reality for nearly a decade. For me, the reason why this all matters comes back to Julius Arile, a young man from Kenya, who has been both a perpetrator and a victim of armed violence. He now uses his experience to campaign for peace, and to persuade other young people to put down their guns. 

Julius got involved in armed violence as a young man. His brother had just been shot in dead in a cattle raid on his village and so he picked up a gun and joined other young men in retaliatory raids. After his best friend died next to him, he put down his gun, and started to run instead. He discovered a new skill, and a new life opened up for him as a professional runner. 

Earlier this summer, I spent a week in Kenya with Julius. I travelled to his home village in West Pokot,  in the north-west, and met with many survivors of armed violence. Their stories of armed cattle raiding, of children being caught in the crossfire, and of families being destroyed were heartbreaking.  Their appeal to the world to stop the flood of weapons into their communities was equally strong.  None of the weapons killing these people’s families were made in Africa - yet it is African lives they have destroyed. 

As a marathon runner Julius knows all about pacing, about stamina and above all determination. All those working for an ATT will need to dig deep and find those skills now. 

There is no doubt in my mind that we will see an Arms Trade Treaty achieved.  We will need to work to get there. The text needs to be strengthened, supporter states need to regroup and campaigners must keep up the pressure in capitals around the world. 

Global change can - and does - happen. It is not a sprint, it takes a long time. But with persistence, drive and downright tenacity, we will get there.  It is too important not to.  With momentum growing for an autumn agreement, the UK government will need to choose if they stay as a race leader or get left behind.

Related links

Sign up: Support a bulletproof arms trade treaty

Blog: UK and US: Save the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations

In depth: Oxfam policy reports supporting an Arms Trade Treaty